From the November 11 meeting of the Chelan County Mountain Rescue Association (CCMRA), Chester Marler and Brandon Levy (WSDOT avalanche control) discussed the reliability of old analog versus the newer digital avalanche beacons. Tom Janisch sent us these notes:

Outdated avalanche beacon on left, and one of the better newer, 3-antenna digital beacons on right made by Pieps.

  • Older beacons are analog. Modern beacons are digital. Modern digital beacons don’t read analog beacons well. There is a “ghosting” so that the digital beacon picking up an analog beacon might indicate two beacons when there is really only one beacon.
  • The Alpine Club of Canada won’t allow analog beacons on ski tours. The Canadian Avalanche Association requires digital beacons.
  • Modern digital beacons have three antennas. Older beacons have one or two. Three antennas make searches easier when there are various coupling positions relative to the transceivers.
  • Analog beacons have a 70-meter useful range. Digital three antenna beacons have a 50-meter useful range.
  • Interference issues need to be considered as to proximity of metal or electronic devices. In transmit mode there should be a minimum of 20 cm between the transceiver and any metal objects or electronic device and 50 cm when in search mode.
  • Those of us who are still using old, analog beacons like the Ortovox F1 should put those units in a museum drawer. Even older, 2-antennal digital units like the BCA’s popular Tracker DTS (introduced in 1997) are considered outdated.
  • My take-home messages 1) If, like me, you’re using an analog beacon, it’s time to bite the bullet and get a modern beacon 2) there are practical issues pertaining to how beacons function and how their signals can be impaired that are really important to know.

Following the November 11 meeting, Stewart Hoover (also a member of the CCMRA) spent time researching what new unit he should get to replace his outdated unit. He shared these findings with the rest of the CCMRA.

After Chester Marler’s presentation on avalanche beacons and the problems with older, single and double antenna beacons, some of us with these older models have decided to upgrade. After reading lots of reviews and talking to some people in the backcountry ski industry, I have decided to purchase the Mammut Pulse Barryvox.

  • In all head-to-head reviews of beacons I could find the Mammut Pulse Barryvox was at the top. All reviewers, both professional and recreational consumers, comment on the ease of use. I did not find any negative reviews for the Mammut, which is in contrast to the Ortovox and BCA beacons. (Shipman, for example, has the Ortovox S1+. He discovered that he couldn’t see the screen in the bright sun light. I borrowed his the other day to fool around with it, and discovered that this in fact was true.)
  • I’m not sure what you can infer from it, but the Mammut seems to be the beacon of choice for guides and heli and backcountry hut operations around Revelstoke. The harness for the Mammut has been lauded as one of the most comfortable, whereas the BCA harness has been criticized as the worst.
  • What most influenced me about this unit is its range. The Pulse Barryvox has a digital range of 60m, and an analog range of 90m. (The other beacons apparently don’t have the ability to switch to analog mode in receive.) The Ortovox advertises a range of 55m, and BCA advertises 50m, although some reviewers have put it at closer to 40m. Some say range isn’t important to them. But for me it is extremely important. I ski a lot just with ThanhVan, and even though we don’t ski the steepest stuff, we travel through and ski a lot of avalanche territory. If she were ever caught in an avalanche, chances are good that we’d be spread apart. And if I’m ever in the position where she is buried and I need to find her, I want every advantage I can get. I view longer range as a big advantage.
  • Also for what it’s worth, I asked for Igor’s input since he’s completed the Canadian ski guide program and has worked at more than half a dozen back country lodges and heli operations in the last couple of years. Here’s what he said (in his less than perfect English, which is pretty good considering it’s his fourth language. (Note: Igor rents Stewart’s house in Revelstoke, BC in the winter.) “About the beacons: I’m not so familiar with the BCA — I guess not many people in the avalanche industry use it (in Canada). In the guiding setting the most use one will be the Barryvox… You can adjust the mode from simple use to professional use (with analog option). The S1+ is another great beacon, really user friendly but not the best in battery live. I personally think all 3 are good. After 5 years using the Barrybox, I’m really happy with it.”
  • I should also mention the Mammut Element. It does not have analog ability, but it still purports to have a digital range of 60m. The magazine Back Country Skiing Canadaelected it as their top choice a while back. The Mammut website has a good comparison of the Element vs. the Pulse Barryvox if you’re interested.

Nate Woodward on the volunteer patrol at Mission Ridge placed these comments on the WenatcheeOutdoorsForum when we placed the above notes in a thread about avalanche beacons:

  • I’ve seen people be very fast with even an old F1. My question I would pose to anyone is how often do you do full simulated transceiver burials? Start at the top of the slope with your jacket zipped up, and located a buried transceiver that your buddy has hidden. Find it and unbury it in 3 minutes or less. The Mission Ridge AC guys have to do a weekly sub 3- minute time, a huge portion of them do this with a 2 antenna Tracker 1.
  • Brand flat out doesn’t matter. Practice is the only thing that matters. I’d rather be skiing with a guy that is fast with an old F1 than a guy with the most tech’d out new transceiver that never spends time practicing with it. Long and the short of it is that if you aren’t spending regular time finding buried transceivers on slopes that reasonably simulate an avalanche path you will be

    The Pieps DSP Sport, a top-rated but very favorably priced option.

    slow in the real deal.

And Aaron Wright sent this link to BeaconReviews.com which is arguably the best and most comprehensive website that tests and reviews beacons. This page, in particular, is excellent for quickly viewing the qualities of 41 different beacons and getting a quick read on how they stack up.

  • The highest rated units by the reckoning of this site: The Pieps DSP Pro ($375), Pieps DSP Sport($275), Ortovox S1+ ($489), Ortovox 3+ ($369), Mammut Pulse Barryvox ($490), Mammut Element Barryvox ($350), BCA Tracker3 ($335), ARVA Neo ($349) and the ARVA Evo 3+ ($289). These units all received 4.5 or 5 stars (out of a possible 5).
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